April 4, 2007 Edition

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WR doctor's own battle
with illness instills strong
compassion for patients

Dr. Shawn Peyton works with her physical therapist, Tracy Jones, at St Bernards Rehabilitation Services. Peyton is recovering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
John Bland

Dr. Shawn Peyton of Jonesboro is well on her way to recovery from a debilitating and frightening illness, Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The experience has instilled in her a strong compassion for her patients that could not be taught in medical school.

Peyton, who practices at the Lawrence County Family Clinic in Walnut Ridge, has fully experienced the fears, pain and the occasional frustrations of being a medical patient.

"I believe I will come back to work with even more empathy for what my patients are going through. I think it's going to make me a better doctor," Peyton said.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare and sometimes difficult disease to diagnose. Only one or two out of every 100,000 people contract the disease.

The ordeal began on the night of Dec. 25, when Shawn, husband, Mark, and their children, Brooke, age five, and Cole, age one, all started having fever, chills and achy joints. While her family recovered in three to four days from an apparent virus, Shawn's symptoms persisted.

Shawn's mother, Deanne Lancaster, explained that besides being a doctor, Shawn is a wife and mom. "As a doctor, she had been extremely busy over the holidays ~ a lot of call and late nights. As a mom, her children had been sick, and she and her husband were getting very little sleep. I think this had a lot to do with the fact she could not 'get over' the virus that she had for at least two weeks."

On the morning of Jan. 8, Shawn awoke with acute stiffness, pain in her neck and a numb tongue.

"My fingers and toes felt like they had frostbite with tingling," Peyton said.

She called in sick for work that morning for the first time ever. She then saw Dr. Ben Owens of Jonesboro, an internist, who put her in the hospital that same day.

After hospitalization, her condition worsened. The numbness and tingling from her fingers and toes spread up her arms and legs. She began to have weakness in her arms and legs and noticed difficulty coordinating her hands to use eating utensils, etc.

Although she had many tests, results were inconclusive. "It was very scary; they weren't giving me a diagnosis," Peyton said.

Then on Jan. 12, doctors concluded she was suffering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease that causes the immune system to become confused. Instead of protecting the body, the immune system attacks the nerves and the coating of the nerves. This usually happens after a viral or bacterial infection and can even happen after immunizations, Peyton said.

When enough damage occurs, the impulses between the nerves and the muscles are short-circuited, and this causes progressive paralysis. It can progress until the diaphragm is paralyzed, causing respiratory arrest and requiring a ventilator, Peyton explained. Fortunately, her illness did not progress to this extreme.

On Jan. 13, she began to receive treatments of intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG). These would block her own antibodies, so they could no longer attack her nervous system.

Despite the beginning of treatment the previous day, her condition worsened on Jan. 14. She had double vision and couldn't walk, with paralysis from the waist down. Her right eye also began to droop.

The treatment began to make a difference on Jan. 15. That morning she could move her feet. She was also barely able to walk with a walker. Her pain began to lessen. "I started feeling better," Peyton said.

She was discharged from the hospital on Jan. 22 and prescribed outpatient physical therapy. However, she was still having fever that would come and go.

A week after being discharged, she had fever and a severe headache and returned to the hospital Feb. 2 for a three-day stay. The headache was due to a buildup of spinal fluid and perhaps a reaction from the "IVIG" treatments. She improved and continued physical therapy.

However, in the latter part of February, she began having symptoms of a relapse. She began having more difficulty walking and her right foot started to drag. She resumed the IV treatment of immunoglobulins, which she received in five rounds over 10 days.

Deanne Lancaster said, "As a mother, it has been heartbreaking to watch my 'tough as nails' and 'full of energy' daughter struggle with this illness, realizing she was not able to bounce back. To not be able to 'make it better' is a mother's nightmare!"

Since March 14, Peyton has had no fever, pain or other symptoms and her strength has begun to improve.

"Now, I'm doing really well. I don't have a lot of stamina, but that's getting better. I'm in rehab and recovering and hoping to get back to work soon," Peyton said. Her prognosis for recovery is very good.

Thankful for support

Besides Peyton's own obvious battle, the illness has also been hard on her family. Her husband, Mark, took a family medical leave from his work to stay with her in the hospital and then at home.

It was especially confusing and difficult for her young son, who did not get to see his mother for two weeks. Cole stayed with Mark's parents, Nancy and Virgil Peyton, while Brooke stayed with Shawn's parents, Deanne and Dr. Ted Lancaster, who also practices at the Lawrence County Family Clinic.

"I am so thankful for all the support from my husband, family, friends, church and patients. I had the sweetest cards and calls ... all that really makes a difference.

"I would also like to thank my husband, Mark, who stayed with me every night at the hospital ... and drove me to all my appointments. He has been loving and supportive through it all.

"I am also extremely thankful to my partners at the clinic who have worked extra hard to cover my call and take care of my patients during my illness. It has been such a relief to know that my patients were in such good hands.

"I am so blessed to have so many praying for me. I really believe all the prayers help.

"This experience has given me a new appreciation for life, and I have learned what is really important: my family, my faith and the caring concern we have for each other."

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